What Avatar does is stun you. Even after the first reveals of the planet Pandora, James Cameron still has tricks left, delivering a mysteriously electric, neon and glowing world that defines epic.
Everything on this planet is refined, brilliantly detailed, and logical. Pandora is a real place to the audience, where a money-hungry corporation wants to dig underneath a sacred tree to gain access to a rare element. In their way are the Na’vi, a peaceful race of blue human-like creatures with a deep connection to their own world.
Avatar is not a popcorn movie. What separates Avatar from its commercialized, cinematic junk food cousins such as Transformers is the level of thought and creation involved. The creatures that inhabit Pandora are wonderfully inventive, logical, and beautiful. They do not exist to sell toys, but to immerse.
Cameron knows this, maybe a little too well, utilizing the special effects wizardry to craft a majestic flying sequence. Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) is linked via his mind to a human/Na’vi hybrid. He has successfully been accepted into the Na’vi tribe, and takes a victory flight on a colorful winged creature. The audience celebrates with Jake, being treated to the same wondrous visuals he is experiencing, but it is tiresome.
For all of the otherworldly majesty present, it doesn’t change that the scene runs dry. Its usefulness to the script has lost its edge, and Cameron has stopped showing the audience a world. Instead, it is Hollywood dollars tossed on the screen for the sole purpose of seeing what that money can do.
Whether Avatar will be able to stand up to time, especially with the advancement of visual effects, is debatable. Those who see Avatar as the second coming of Star Wars are somewhat misguided. Where Luke Skywalker is a cinematic icon, Jake Sully is more of a place holder. He lacks the charm or charisma, his disability being the only standout characteristic.
In fact, Sully celebrates his Avatar form, purely so he can indulge in the ability to walk. It is the closest thing to legitimate character development the script offers, then moving on to more spectacular planetary vistas. It is what Cameron does best, and undoubtedly what Avatar needs to survive.
There is little wrong with this display of technical prowess given the imagination at work. To becomes truly special, Avatar needed that base, an involving center character to lead you through Pandora, and while it doesn’t provide, Pandora does on its own.
Avatar’s transfer is a tale of two different looks. The AVC encode has supposedly been maxed out, and you can’t argue that if you pay close attention to the bitrate (not that it matters much). The scenes with the Na’vi carry all of the precision, depth, and remarkable levels of detail that any CG animated film could. Pandora, loaded with trees, plant life, and staggering dimensionality is flawless. Every tree leaf, every strand of grass, every slab of moss is clearly defined. Masterful panoramas are stunners, particularly those scenes featuring the flying Ikrons. Their colorful patterns burst off the screen with intensely vibrant reds and oranges. Their free environments, including one of countless reference quality shots at 2:05:10, are jaw droppingly perfect. Crashing waves, numerous flying creatures, specks of water falling from rocks, and crevices in the formations themselves are what hi-def was made for.
Picking a single scene on Pandora to show off seems almost wasteful. That means you are missing the hundreds of others that deliver equally. As Jake and Neytiri mate, the brightly colored, purple glowing strands of plant life are magnificent. Facial detail is spectacular, and image depth is absolute perfection. If you’re goal is to demonstrate equipment for pure visual power, this is a fine starting point.
Colors are saturated flawlessly, from the now famous blue stripes of the Na’vi, to the varied colors of the flying creatures. Everything on Pandora is rich, bold, and vibrant. Forest greens are deep, and the fire that engulfs the planet as humans begin their destruction is intensely bright. Black levels never disappoint. The entire finale is actually a showcase as well. The face paint worn by the Na’vi shows clearly defined textures. Human faces show off fully resolved pores and other high fidelity detail. Long shots, with complex machinery, additional plants, and countless flying creatures, remain firm without fault. Looking for noise or additional flaws typically associated with complex effects is a waste of time.
All of that happens on Pandora. The human side of things, inside pale-colored military bases, is where the digital nature of the film shows itself. First noted at 7:37 as Miles gives his speech, things begin to appear processed and unnaturally smooth. People seated as they listen intently offer poor definition. Nearly all scenes involving the humans carry these qualities. More extreme examples include Sully’s arms at 1:18:44, which are noticeably smooth, like the enthusiast despised DNR look (although that is not the case here, just a fair comparison). The entire scene, while offering facial detail, is poorly refined. There is a softness and a decidedly digital look to the proceedings. Small grates can flicker slightly as well, a nitpick at the worst.
These flaws are no fault of the encode. The theatrical release carried the same qualities. If anything, the clarity and brilliance of this transfer makes these flaws further stand out. Cameron utilized the Sony CineAlta series along with the Pace Fusion 3-D, both digital, but both delivering images that reveal their readily apparent non-film look. Needless to say, many will not be bothered at all, swept away by the sights Pandora has to offer and wonder why anyone is complaining. To them, just enjoy it, immerse yourself, and move on. To the discerning videophile, try to do the same. It’s worth it.
Update: Avatar has made its way to 3D and the results are often stupendous. It may come as a surprise that the highs are all dialogue scenes. Shots of control rooms with floating monitors and Jake’s first interaction with the glowing, falling seeds in the forest is an absolute wonder to behold. The lens is positioned perfectly to enhance not only the foreground, but the miles deep background too. Aerials of Home Tree are marvelous in their scale, and seeing hundreds of Na’vi gathered is something special.
Oddly, action scenes do not offer the same level of depth. The flight sequence as Jake first gains his bearings with the dragon-like creature is just… okay. The sense of flight is there but not the jaw-dropping material one would expect from 3D’s landmark offering. The assault on Home Tree is arguably the best of the lot as debris scatters towards the viewer and gunships float in front of the viewer. The rest just sort of are.
The 3D disc also contains the extended cut of Avatar, so the additional scenes are more eye candy to take in. Action in the additional sequences is equal to the others, although with lost of creatures rampaging and leaping at the screen in a stampede. Fun, it not a savior. However, the dialogue scenes are so powerful, so deep, and so intense, there is plenty of reference material to go around.
Thankfully, no one should find anything to complain about with Fox’s awe-inspiring DTS-HD effort. From the opening frames, the surrounds and subwoofer become engaged. The hum of the spaceships engines, the roar of the fire from entering the atmosphere, and staggering amounts of ambiance are all present. Inside bunkers, idle chatter is inserted into all available channels. The hangar has distinct metal clanging as people work on their ships. Once into the jungles, ambient life is aggressively placed in the surrounds with no ill-effect. It sounds natural, not overdone or unnecessary.
Like the video, showcase scenes are numerous. If you are looking for directionality, the assault by the tiger-like creatures on Jake around 34:30 is a spectacle. Their grunts and growls are firmly placed in specific channels as they circle. Motion is nothing short of audio perfection. Jake whips around a torch that likewise is tracked in front and in the rears as it passes the camera.
Of course, the finale, with its array of bullets, engines, explosions, falling trees, Na’vi calls, and creature roars will see countless plays purely to appreciate the work that went into it. As expected, fidelity has no faults. Everything that audio fans know of modern audio is present, and more importantly, in balance. Even under the most intense explosions or deep, powerful bass cues, James Horner’s score is never lost. In fact, its fullness is maintained better than most musical numbers in films such as this. The bleed into the surrounds is equal to that of the action itself.
Dialogue reproduction is perfect, and not a line is lost due to action or streams of bullets. Animal roars, despite being pulled from other films, carry weight and clarity. This uncompressed effort carries power in everything it does. The benefit to the listener is undeniable, adding another immersive layer to already powerful visual splendor.
Fox claims the total lack of extras is due to the encoders maximizing the bitrate as far as it will go, but that is nothing short of shenanigans. Do two-disc sets suddenly not exist? Avatar will return to home video, and undoubtedly, people will re-buy.